MYSTIC — This year’s annual Cabin Fever Festival and Charity Chowder Cook-Off lived up to its name as people came by the thousands, excited to get out on a beautiful sunny Saturday.
And when it was all over, the festival, in which all proceeds benefit the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, raised a staggering $21,000, smashing last year’s then-record total of $13,183. “We’re still shocked,” said Mary-Jane Cassidy, a representative for Olde Mistick Village, the host site for the festival.
Vicki Anderson, executive director of the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, was overwhelmed. “We had a true New England winter so today’s crowd was a case of cabin fever,” she said Saturday.
With the donations from the festival the center plans to expand its Weekender Backpack Food Program for Children, which is available to those families in the federal free or reduced lunch program. For children that qualify, it supplies the six meals children might miss over the weekend.
The center presently runs the program in Stonington and North Stonington.
“We want to expand the program in Westerly,” she said.
The event is a February tradition at Olde Mistick Village and Saturday marked its 11th year. This year saw 24 entrants in the chowder competition but make no mistake, it’s a full-scale family-oriented festival.
Some lines for chowder were more than 100 feet long and the village was full of people. Parking was more than the village and the Mystic Aquarium could handle. Some patrons headed across the street to nearby hotels or stores.
“It’s been very busy today, much busier than last year,” said Sharon Clements of Semolina Pasta Shop. “It’s snowed all winter so it’s definitely cabin fever, and the weather is beautiful.”
Two hours into the competition she was almost out of chowder.
A team of media celebrities, Rick Koster, David Tranchida and Elissa Bass, judged three additional categories: Most Creative Chowder; Heartiest Chowder; and Best Use of Regional Ingredients.
• This year’s overall winner chosen by the voters was again Mystic Aquarium’s Ocean Blue Catering. Second place went to Highland Grille, run by the Westerly High School Culinary students, and third place to Octagon Steakhouse.
• Best Use of Regional Ingredients went to the Highland Grille, the Heartiest to Semolina Pasta Shop and the Most Creative to Soundings Lounge at the Mystic Hilton.
The Most Creative Chowder defending champion won last year with a chocolate chicken chowder. This year she prepared something entirely different; drunken fish chowder.
“It’s haddock marinated in champagne for five days. It also includes bacon, corn and potatoes,” she said.
Along with husband Stephen, the two are also opening a new restaurant, Frizzante Wine Bar & Speakeasy in North Stonington. “It’s been a very busy month but the festival is always enjoyable. It gives us the opportunity to be creative and use flavors that are different and yet complement each other,” she said.
At a different store, Chef Chris Pressler of Mystic Aquarium’s Ocean Blue Catering worked feverishly to serve the endless line of patrons in an attempt to keep it moving. Last year’s overall winner, this year he again prepared “fruits de mer” chowder. French for “fruit of the sea,” the chowder contained monkfish, clams, crab meat, scallops and lobster.
In a little over two minutes he had served more than 20 gallons.
“We’ve been cranking it out all day,” he said.
It was a busy day for the stores as well.
“It’s been a very good day,” said Barbara Sinclair, owner of The Toy Soldier.
Throughout the village there was a lot to do. The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center made two presentations and the Stonington Singers from Mystic Middle School played at the Meeting House for an hour. There was even a pirate on stilts.
The money raised came from the sale of $1 tickets, each good for a 3-ounce cup of chowder from one of the 27 restaurants and caterers participating in the festival. Each participant was paired with a village store, from which it served its chowder and competed for the people’s choice award for best chowder.